Retiring–Rewiring

Camping at Bon Echo…Echo…Echo

The camping gods were really smiling down on us this week. Somehow in this thunderstorm-bashed soggy summer, we picked the only stretch of five rain-free days to set up a tent and get woodsy. Bon Echo Provincial Park had long been on our list to visit, but, the five hour drive from Cambridge always deterred us. There was also our undeniable love affair with the dunes of Long Point where we had migrated every summer.

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What Kim and I were rewarded with was a Group of Seven landscape. Campsites designed with the discreet camper in mind. We’ve been to parks that seem more like suburbia with radios blaring, blinding floodlights, car alarms sounding off at all hours and competing cell phone ringtones.

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Bon Echo’s soundtrack: The Barred Owl’s infamous “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call through the tall stands of beech. The maniac laugh of loons on Lower Mazinaw. Pileated woodpeckers at 6am, like a construction crew framing a house. Birch logs snapping and sizzling in the fire ring.

Bonus: Radio-free zone camping.

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Mini history lesson: Bon Echo became a provincial park in 1965. Situated north of Kaladar (home of a Philly cheese steak and poutine food truck and designated dark sky preserve), the park’s Instagram backdrop is Mazinaw Rock, an unexpected and startling 330-foot cliff. It gets better: this rock face doubles as a historical canvas of over 260 aboriginal pictographs (rock paintings—now designated as a National Historic Site of Canada). If you hop in a canoe, you can paddle through the Narrows and J-stroke along the length of this gallery.

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Prior to being a coveted park to pop a tent, the land was owned by a lumber baron (Weston A. Price) who built the Bon Echo Inn, a boutique hotel before boutique was a thing. The desired clientele were wealthy, God-loving teetotalers. That is, until the property was sold to Howard and Flora MacDonald Denison who spun the hotel on its heels and turned it into a retreat for thinkers, social drinkers, painters and writers. Flora was a Toronto writer and suffragette with a literary crush on Walt Whitman. The crush is evident in her open chiselled tribute to him smack dag on Mazinaw Rock. In the summer of 1919, two Scots stone masons chipped away lines of his poetry in foot-tall letters.

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Flora’s son inherited the inn after her death in 1921, and in 1936 the bake house was struck by lightning and a fire destroyed many of the outbuildings in its hot path. The inn was never rebuilt but her son continued to summer at Bon Echo. His conservation interests led to the in demand land being donated to the province for the purpose of a provincial park.

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Flash facts:

Mazinaw is the second-deepest lake in Ontario.

Bon Echo is home to Ontario’s only lizard, the five-lined skink. (*Photo below is of a red-backed salamander, not a skink.)

Red-backed salamander--not a skink!

A tin of tuna and tzatziki with a little kale rolled up in wrap is pretty sensational. Is it weird to segue from skinks to tuna + tzatziki?

Flora, Fauna, Fungi

Dotted along the India ink waters of Mazinaw Lake, mushrooms abound.  Egg yolk yellow mushrooms sit in the ferns. Beatrix Potter toadstools list in the long grasses and lichen.

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At Bon Echo, many of the sites are walk-in (versus pop the trunk and empty contents two feet away), allowing for a thorough Thoreau experience.

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The bird life abounds, and in Hardwood Hills, even the deer flies are the size of hummingbirds.

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There’s a guaranteed firefly convention each night and we counted four falling stars whizzing towards the earth. Be sure to check your log pile for red-backed salamanders too!

Blackboard Menu Highlights

Buttermilk pancakes with dollops of vanilla yogurt and genuine Mennonite maple syrup

Caberneigh scrambled eggs and Bush Beans (Bush is a sponsor of Ontario Parks and donated pyramids of free cans for campers)

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Falafel balls with red-wine reduced sweet onions, red peppers and yogurt tzatziki

Sirloin burritos with salsa and mosquito-flecked sour cream

Basil pesto penne with sundried tomatoes, sausage and sunflower seeds pinch hitting for pine nuts

Suggested Road Trip: We decided to check out Bancroft (1hr and 15 minutes from the park) on the only temporarily cloudy morning. We needed ice, and, because we’re moving 5 hours in the opposite direction, we knew it would be awhile until we revisited these parts.

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What to do: Be sure to drop into squeaky new Bancroft Brewing Co. and work your way through their effervescent line-up. The best of the lot: their rich coffee-licious Black Quartz, ruby red Logger’s Ale and special patriotic tribute—the “150.” Growlers are $9 plus a $3 deposit and necessary for fireside. Pair with handfuls of pistachios, honey garlic sausages, jalapeno Monterey Jack and surprise friends who text and say, “We fixed the starter on the VW! We’ve booked a site in Hardwood Hills! See you tonight!”

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While you’re in Bancroft, have an impromptu picnic along the creek and don’t miss the curio at The Tin Shed just off the main drag. Sniff all the “clothesline” and “cedar cabin” scented candles. Marvel at the door knockers, rod iron hooks, hinges and salvage. Buy that blank notebook that says “Find what brings you joy and go there!”

There are several mercantile and thrift shops, the classic Stedman’s, token fudge shop and fresh produce stand for sausage and wiener-fatigued campers. The green beans, bunches of radishes, gooseberries and thimble-sized raspberries beckon!

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Nostalgic side note: My greatest thrill as we cruised along Highway #28 to Bancroft wasn’t Moose FM playing Billy Idol’s Mony, Mony (but that was great too). It was passing by a sign that indicated Camp Walden was the next right hand turn. CAMP WALDEN! This was epicentre of my high school years! In grade nine I went as a camper and then returned like a boomerang for the next four years as counsellor in the (fittingly) Journalism department. With a dedicated crew of future Dharma Bum Kerouacs and Burroughs-in-the-makings, we cranked out the mighty “Camp Log” on a daily basis. I loved this art camp right down to the Three Blob Lunch (blob of tuna salad, blob of egg salad and blob of potato salad) and no-erasers-allowed sketchbook policy.

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Suggested road trip in the other direction: On Highway 41, south of Cloyne (20 minutes from Bon Echo), Graybarre School House Treasures (look for the plastic Fred Flinstone outside) is exploding with whimsy and inventory. Salt and pepper shakers, pewter pig napkin holders, squirrel nut crackers, tin watering cans, lanterns, backcatcher masks, old goalie pads, 7-Up glasses—STUFF. It’s easy to lose an hour and a hundred bucks here.

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Otherwise, hightail it back to Bon Echo, because outside the park it’s just worms, ice cream and fireworks. Oh, and a fish and chip joint cleverly named The Codfather.

Rent a canoe, walk the wilds and recalibrate. Like that blank book cover in The Tin Shed said, “Find what brings you joy and go there.”

Hint: Bon Echo

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Categories: Passport Please, Retiring--Rewiring, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

88 Houses: The Arduous Journey to Find a House to Call Home

If you are a Facebook friend, real estate agent, bartender, Sobey’s cashier or brick wall, you’ve probably heard about our daunting search for a home. And when I say brick wall—it’s because we were hitting our heads against one for the last nine months. Longer, actually.

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Selling our little stone cottage in Galt on Facebook in August 2016 was easy. Finding a forwarding address became the arduous journey. Really, if we calculated the mileage that we clocked driving to and fro from the Frontenac to Tobermory, Kim and I probably drove to Tijuana, Mexico over 12 times.  We looked at 88 houses. EIGHTY EIGHT! You know that annoying school bus song? 99 Bottles of Beer on the wall? Well, imagine 88 houses, second verse same as the first.

DSCF5195Our storage pod is a distant memory. We’re not even entirely sure what we own anymore—but we do know that we did not thoughtfully bring our winter boots with us to Caberneigh Farm. Since August, we have been “barn cats,” sharing space with Olive the pig, eight horses, three chickens, and two real barn cats: Lucy and Freddie (one of which—Lucy– has decided she’s over the barn thing and has been squatting quite snugly with us.  A hidden camera would reveal her balled up on my jeans (yes, I’m still wearing pajamas at 1:30pm).

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Lucy, a former barn cat who was also looking for a home, like us.

We never anticipated that we would be living in a barn (but, it’s a seriously fancy one—with Netflix and wifi. There’s a pool table serving double purpose as my walk-in closet, an English pub-esque oak bar on one end, and a full-on view of the riding ring. Our front balcony view is a pastoral postcard with a bonus soundtrack: great horned owls, distant spring peepers and the wild telegraph of coyotes cutting the silence. Falling stars routinely drop like confetti in the light pollution free skies of the Scugog.

DSCF5303This is what Plan A, B and C were: we would find a house in the fall. We would move in just before New Year’s (for sure!) and make a lovely ham studded with cloves for our family on Christmas day. Christmas and my mother’s stand-in studded ham came and went. Real estate agents (we had about seven working in our favour, at every port) promised us that January 1st was going to mark the beginning of a lava hot market. The newspaper headlines and Twitter feeds have become repetitive. The market inventory is at an all-time low, houses are going over-ask and even though it’s a sellers’ market—sellers are afraid to sell because what the hell are they going to buy?

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So, January was a blow-out. Kim and I were on repeat. Wake, turn on laptop, gently nudge Cuisinart coffee maker switch to ‘on.’ Spend next three hours crawling through potential realtor.ca listings from Lake Erie to Crotch Lake to Devil Lake to where? It didn’t even matter anymore.

Unfortunately, this one wasn't for sale.

Unfortunately, not for sale.

We looked in Trent Hills, Campbellford, Prince Edward County, Napanee, Perth, Smiths Falls, Jasper, Verona (see what I mean? Where?), South Frontenac, Tweed, Cramahae, Tobermory, Meaford, Tiny (until we found out my ex had a cottage there a Tiny became too tiny), Port Albert, Port Franks, South Big Island, Grand Bend, Wolfe Island, Pelee, the Moira River, Meyers Island, Warkworth, Waupoos, Westport, Elora, Fergus. And, back. Then to Belize on one we-give-up night.

Just pick a place. We looked at a house or a chunk of property there.

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The start of our search in Prince Edward County in September of 2015. *This is NOT a typo. We started looking waaaaay back then!

We looked at old farmhouses, log homes, pan-abodes, contemporary builds, churches, container homes, passive solar houses, three-season cottages, cottages still vintage 1963 with avocado everything, paneling and shag. We started at a hopeful $300K and upped our budget by $200,000 in no time.

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*Conclusion: the problem with cutesy churches and old schoolhouses–they are always 10 feet from the road and ENORMOUS inside. ie. Ontario Hydro $$$$$$$

Every house hunting and gathering trip ended with exasperation. I looked for signs in the bubbles of our beer foam. I slept-in longer, hoping for an epiphany. Kim started designing house plans on serviettes and we actually sat down and crunched numbers with half a dozen builders. We couldn’t even build what we wanted because we couldn’t find land. The vacant lots either required a snowmobile or aqua-lunged Land Rover to get to. We put in an offer on one sunset lot in Prince Edward County for $189,900. For a sliver of steep lakefront. It was almost too quiet there though—we could actually hear the blood cycling through our head. Luckily, we were out bid, though we had visions of a Nordic Stark stacked container design in which we would live happily ever after, foraging mushrooms and asparagus while fermenting pine needles to make gin.

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Jasper, Ontario. We were nearly killed by 10,000 mosquitoes here.

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Gorgeous, but, truly the middle-of-nowhere unless you enjoy the company of cows. However, we are going to steal this horse trough/container garden idea.

There’s no need to go into all the disappointing details of the 87 houses that didn’t pan out. Just insert something—carpenter ants, pigs for neighbours (real pigs), a cemetery two steps from the back door, a heaving floor, junker neighbours with a tent city made out of tarps and dismantled cars…

Our most viable options looked something like this:

Reality was beginning to set in on affordable fixer-uppers.

Please note: vaulted ceilings

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Every day we gave up something on our wish list. Gone were sunsets. Gone was waterfront. Gone was our notion of living in Prince Edward County—the place we had funneled so much attention and affection for.

Our friend and family circle didn’t help matters. Kim no longer needed to be close to the steel mill and I could work anywhere with an internet connection.

We wanted so few things—but, we know the whispers were all about us being too picky. Is a golf course, microbrewery and library all in one 50km radius too much to ask?

We did not want to settle for generic. We did not want to be house poor or have to sacrifice spontaneous trips to Africa. Yes, we wanted it all, right down to the Japanese soaker tub and shiplapped walls.

This was actually somebody's garage near Black River--but, Kim quickly designed a 2-bedroom floor plan for us.

This was somebody’s three-car garage near Black River, ON, that Kim designed a 2-bedroom floor plan for.

Don’t even ask how many hours of HGTV we’ve consumed. Or, how many bottles of pre-celebration champagne we drank, so sure that the house we were going to see the next morning was the sacred one.

Until, finally, one unexpected day (in particular, March 29th) we unearthed the home we had been looking bleary-eyed for. It was in the Northern Bruce Peninsula! No wonder we couldn’t find it! After we had exhausted our viable options in Grand Bend and Bayfield that same week we began the online X-ray scan of listings again.

“Where was that place you loved so much last week?” I asked Kim.

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“Near Tobermory. I thought we ruled that area out though because it’s so far.”

It was far, but as close as we’d ever come to our vision. In fact, it was so convincing that we were ready to buy it over the phone. My reserved enthusiasm went 360 and the thoughts of going to check out this Northern Bruce Peninsula house. Where? It was 7km from Lion’s Head with had a farmer’s market, Foodland, LCBO, vintage café and Lion’s Head Inn pub. See, we’d be close to stuff!

I read further. The house was right on the 45th parallel—half way to the equator and half way to the North Pole! Yes, we had crossed off Tobermory because it was just so frozen and desolate in January when we went.

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OUR West Little Lake in the Bruce Peninsula! photo credit: realtor.ca

We wanted privacy, we didn’t want nosey parker neighbours. We wanted sunsets and a lake. This was it! Vaulted ceilings, the open floor plan, soaker tub, hardwood, workshop, garage…and, it was all in a designated Dark Sky Community! We’d be living in a UNESCO World Heritage site. I started looking up local birds and ferns (there are orchids in this area that grow nowhere else in the world).

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Vaulted ceilings, coves, transom windows, gas fireplace…check, check, check.

We phoned our agent, Ashley Barker, who we had kindly “broke up” with after our last trip to Tobermory. The Bruce Peninsula was back on our horizon. We had seen 87 houses to know that this was what we wanted. It had been on the market 10 days and the northern market was starting to thaw. “You should come see it soon.”

Kim and I went the very next day. It was slate grey skies and miserable out but the house had a glow of its own. We pulled up the driveway and knew. For the first time, it was better than the photos on realtor.ca

I didn’t even grab our camera (which I routinely did on our searches). I wanted to take it all in—and, I knew it was going to be ours—I could take all the pictures I wanted then.

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Everything we wanted, right down to the cupola. Photo credit: realtor.ca

We laughed about considering Tiny House Nation. We had just bought a 2750-square foot house! Four bathrooms?? It was bigger than we imagined, but it was everything—tucked in a forest of cedars and birch. A tiny dock positioned to take in the wide screen sunsets. No grass to cut. No master gardens to crook our backs managing like we did in Galt.

There was no exhaustive list of changes (though we will work some shiplap and cement counter tops into the mix) that would include blowing the roof off. It was bright and freeing…the kind of place you walk into and take a deep breath. Where you can actually feel yourself breathe easier. We walked around like those buyers on fixer-uppers shows that can only say, “WOW” and “Oh my god!”

88 houses later. We found our wow.

Categories: Home Sweet Home, Retiring--Rewiring, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Re-drawing your life’s trail map

Yesterday I interviewed an effervescent naturopath about her contemporary farmhouse conversion in West Galt for a local magazine. Over a blood red berry tea (and one of those cleanse tonics with maple syrup, lemon and cayenne for her), conversation drifted to forks in the road. Is it ever too late to revisit a path not taken? She split off an obvious path of creativity in pursuit of another, one of stability. Can you go back? Or, is it like searching Facebook for your grade nine boyfriend/girlfriend and trying to rekindle the sparkly feeling when you spun ’round and ’round to Stairway to Heaven, sneaking in surreptitious root beer-breathed kisses?
My paths have sometimes been more like a hedge maze, but, they all have distinct markers–sometimes the path was made longer by complacency, African sabbaticals or misguided affections. I look at my list (I’m a Virgo, you make lists of your possible careers, chronically) and can rationalize why some were never logical, but gosh, they’d be a riot (ie. hot air balloon operator, cake decorator, ornithologist specializing in Galapagos species, bookstore owner with a brindle French bulldog ambassador to greet customers, sommelier and/or vineyard owner, urban street corner toasted marshmallow vendor).
It’s interesting to observe that retirement is the permissible time to revisit such abandoned dreams or backburner pursuits. Is it because a reliable income is no longer a benchmark for success? Are lifelong hobbies simply micro-careers that are designed to remain just that?
What do you think? Are you re-drawing your trail map?

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